I could hardly believe it! There he was, live and in the flesh! The bass player whose musicianship alternately inspired, challenged or drove me to despair as I once again could not figure out what magic he was performing on my latest Motown 45. I would pick the needle up off the record and in disgust vow to switch to guitar, tuba, anything but bass! The year was 1966 and I was sitting in the vast expanse of the Fox Theater in Detroit attending the legendary Motown Revue. All night long there was talent galore featuring all the wonderful names and acts that don’t need mentioning, but I was there only for one thing, to hear and see James Jamerson, the heart and soul of the Motown sound. All the hits of Motown were performed that night. To hear the bass lines I knew so well with the added inspiration of a live performance, including bass solos was mesmerizing to a thirteen-year-old. Even today, whenever I hear Motown music, I immediately seek out the low-toned wizardry of Jamerson. It sounds as innovative and as full of life as the day he recorded it in the “snake pit” at Motown’s studio on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Great music doesn’t show its age. (Will the same be said for rap and hip-hop?) Jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy said of music it’s in the air and then it’s gone. That is especially true of jazz, as it has been recorded less. When genius meets pop music, like it did with Jamerson, the work is amply documented because of the industry’s demand for new product.
What makes his music so unique? I think there are two factors. One is the integrity of the musical ideas themselves and then there’s the voice. Jamerson’s voice was his electric bass and it was like no other. That reminds me of an interview I read some time ago in DownBeat with the son of Thelonious Monk. He recalled asking his dad who he thought was the greatest or among the greatest of jazz singers. Nothing prepared him for the answer. He was expecting one of several familiar names. After pausing for just a moment, Monk replied, “Bing Crosby.” His son was stunned. He recalled thinking and I’ll paraphrase- my dad is Thelonius Monk and I just heard him say he thinks the corniest white dude on the planet is a great jazz singer!!!??? In asking why, Monk simply said that from the second Bing opened his mouth; you knew it could only be he. Whether you agree with Monk or not isn’t the point but it speaks volumes about Jamerson’s bass playing.
Considering the rather routine and humdrum role of bass accompaniment in the pop music of the day, Jamerson’s musical palette was full of color, shade, tints and hues. Expressed musically, it was a full-blown orchestral approach, rich with syncopation, augmentation, diminution, arpeggios, ostinato, motifs, obbligato, register transfers and harmonic displacement, all delivered with a jazzman’s sensitivity. Just listen to the Four Tops’ “Bernadette” or Stevie Wonders’ “I Was Made To Love Her” or The Temptations’ “ Cloud Nine” Pretty heady stuff for pop music bass playing, sometimes a little too heady for Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, who from time to time took issue with Jamerson’s reluctance to play on the downbeat or with less syncopation. Is it an exaggeration to say James Jamerson was indispensable to the Motown Sound? After all, Motown was full of great musicians, many of them jazz musicians. Here’s what Smokey Robinson had to say, ”…. they used to hold up sessions back in Detroit until he came off the road, because none of the producers wanted to cut without him.” In truth, the talent of the studio musicians, writers and arrangers working for Motown ran deep. It wasn’t a one-man show. The technical innovations of recording engineer Mike McClain played an important role in the development of the Motown sound. Also, the introduction of 8-track recording allowed Jamerson’s playing to move to the forefront as he now had his own channel and was not mixed in with other instruments.
After so many years and so many new styles in pop music, does the James Jamerson mystique still exist? Not too long ago I was playing a jazz duo gig, an R & B band was also playing. Musicians will often stroll over to the next room and give a listen to the other musicians, as you never know what you’ll hear. These guys were much younger than I, but we struck up a conversation and after telling them I was from Detroit, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to Jamerson. When I told them that I had actually heard Jamerson play, a couple of times, during Motown’s heyday, they listened with rapt attention. Why still the interest and the admiration? I could see it in the eyes of these young men. Virtuoso electric bass players are common these days and offer a stunning array of techniques and chops. I think if James was still around he may have replied like Lester Young did when a young saxophonist tore through his latest Bebop licks in order to impress “Prez.” After listening, Young simply said, “Yea baby, but can you tell me a story.” Jamerson was a storyteller. He captured your attention like a good novelist and introduced you to a world of his own making using musical notes and rhythms instead of characters to flesh out the tale.
Nothing lasts forever; times change and in 1972 Motown relocated to the West Coast. A great bass player began to lose his voice. The family atmosphere among the Detroit musicians was replaced by a more detached professional atmosphere of the L.A. studio environment and James’ role slowly became less central to the new pop music sound. Personal problems began to hold sway over him as he was losing his battle with alcohol, although he continued to produce much great music with occasional flashes of absolute brilliance. The flame of his genius began to flicker and his presence on recordings became less and less. He died in August of 1983. The last time I felt as sad about the passing of a musician was in January of 1979 with the passing of Charles Mingus
A book I have thoroughly enjoyed is called- Standing In The Shadows Of Motown- The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson by Dr. Licks (Alan Slutsky). In it there are transcriptions of Jamerson’s bass parts for the Motown tunes we know so well. A number of famous bass players and not so known studio bassists record these transcriptions. All the musicians are talented, but I can think of no better example of Jamerson’s genius than listening to these musical tributes. Every one of them is flawlessly executed, heartfelt and sincere but without the heart and soul of Jamerson infusing them with fire, passion and the imprint of the creator they’re only the shadow of a passing giant.
“….his influence is omnipresent.”- Berry Gordy
James Lee Jamerson Jr. (January 29, 1936- August 2, 1983)
Rest In Peace